What is your vision of Frederick County in ten years, twenty, fifty? Does it include the preservation of most of our agricultural landscapes, natural areas and distinct rural communities — our farms and forests, rivers and streams?
There are times when a big and ambitious idea seems like just the right idea at just the right time. In other words, what may once have seemed improbable, if not impossible, becomes a clear and practical, common sense approach that resonates strongly with most citizens of the region in question.
For almost two decades, I have thought about and discussed the idea of what I am now, for the moment, referring to informally as the South Frederick County Rural Reserve.
The essential idea is to establish a large swath of the southwestern part of the county as a rural and agricultural reserve, that connects to, extends and compliments the remarkable 93,000 acre Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve, which, since it was established 42 years ago, has withstood relentless development pressure in a still-growing county with more than a million residents.
Given the development across the river and on all other sides of the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve, it is entirely up to Frederick County to decide if the reserve is going to become an oddly-shaped island of farms and natural areas and small rural communities amid an sprawling sea of development, or if, in the long run, it will be the eastern portion of a significantly larger, multi-county wedge of productive agriculture, healthy and connected ecosystems and attractive towns and villages that have not merged into one endless suburb.
Of course, even without the existence of the large reserve abutting Frederick County and the Potomac River, there would still be a compelling case for a South Frederick County Rural Reserve, based on what exists there today, and knowing that, in the long run, in a growing Frederick County, what is not clearly identified and actively preserved will either be fragmented or consumed by development.
So, let’s take a quick look at what is there now.
On the southeastern end of the proposed reserve is the Sugarloaf Treasured Landscape Management Area, which is comprised of 19,719 acres and directly abuts the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve. Included in this area is the private (but accessible to the public) Sugarloaf Mountain (or Stronghold), the state-owned Monocacy Natural Resource Management Area, miles of the Monocacy River and numerous healthy tributaries, part of the Monocacy National Battlefield and an abundance of other forested land.
Directly to the west of the the Sugarloaf Treasured Landscape Management Area is the expansive Carrollton Manor Rural Legacy Area, an existing agricultural reserve and greenway, which bridges most of the gap between the Mid-Maryland Montgomery Rural Legacy Area and the Mid-Maryland Frederick Rural Legacy Area in southwestern Frederick County. This Area includes a great deal of high quality farmland, river systems (the Potomac National Heritage River and Monocacy Scenic River), scenic byways, and historic communities
Just west of the Carrollton Manor Rural Legacy Area is the forested Catoctin Mountain ridge, which dramatically reaches the Potomac River on the west side of the aptly named Point of Rocks community.
West of the ridge is an area of rolling farms and forests, split by the lower reaches of Catoctin Creek, which drains the beautiful Middletown Valley on its way to the Potomac River. Already more than a dozen farms in this area have been permanently preserved through different county and state agricultural preservation programs.
North and west of this area is the Mid-Maryland Frederick County Rural Legacy Area. The large RLA borders and runs east of South Mountain, and includes parts of (and is within the viewshed of) the Appalachian Trail and South Mountain State Park. The area builds on protecting two contiguous blocks of preserved farm and forest land. And already protected lands surround and buffer the historic village of Burkittsville. This RLA includes some of Frederick County’s most productive agricultural lands.
As you can see, in a diverse range of ways, the area encompassed by the proposed South Frederick County Rural Reserve already reflects decades of land use and planning and zoning decisions that have consistently identified and made real progress to preserving the farmland and forest and rural communities of this rich and diverse and beautiful part of Frederick County.
Tying all of it together in a South Frederick County Rural Reserve would further and formally establish the preservation of this area as a planning priority, and, done well, could significantly reduce the potential for development in the region.
This is not the time or place to get into the weeds about all of the ways in which this could be done in a meaningful and effective manner. But suffice it to say for the moment that there is an abundance of tools that would or could be utilized as the reserve is incorporated into the county’s comprehensive plan (“LIvable Frederick”), and all that can go with that (including preserving current land use plan designations and zoning).
It would be easy to underestimate the value and importance of having a clearly defined boundary and a singular identity for a large and diverse reserve of this nature. But, again, consider the fact that the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve has survived…and thrived…despite unending pressures, often from wealthy and influential development interests.
Their reserve wasn’t, and ours wouldn’t be, guaranteed to survive generations of pressure and proposals for development. In no small part, the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve has largely managed to resist the erosion of the original vision and the fragmentation of the landscape and/or the altering of its boundaries because, in spite of all the development pressures, it has had a real identity — a brand, if you will — that county residents came to know, and care about and support.
There is a lot more to say about this proposal than I can tackle in this blog entry. But I will note that only two incorporated municipalities are in close proximity: Brunswick and Middletown. Any process of establishing a boundary for such an agricultural or rural reserve in this part of the county would have to engage and involve all the communities within or close to it. But Brunswick and Middletown, in particular, as incorporated municipalities with their own elected governments, and the ability to annex land beyond their current boundaries, would assuredly want a plan that would reasonably preserve their options and accommodate their evolving plans for future growth through annexation.
Having said that, based on countless conversations, I also believe that most of the people who live in the unincorporated communities the area — in or near Adamstown, Buckeystown, Burkittsville, Jefferson and Point of Rocks, etc. — treasure their communities and the rural landscape and natural areas surrounding them, and do not want their communities to be at the center of new and sprawling development.
Frederick County is going to grow. And local government, in partnership with citizens, organizations and businesses, needs to plan responsibly for the growth that is coming. But, as I have said for a long time, we really do not have to sacrifice what we love about Frederick County as we grow and change. But that is only possible with proper priorities and planning. It will not happen by accident.
Below are a number of additional maps that can help you visualize some of the points made above. And below them is the column (also links above) that I wrote almost seventeen years ago related to this proposal.
Thank you for your interest in this possibility. Please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments or suggestions, or even if you’d like to be kept informed about or get involved in the effort to make something like this reality.
County should work to reserve open space
by Kai Hagen
May 12, 2005
If only I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say they did not want Frederick County to end up like Montgomery County, or observe that it already has.
Of course, such comments are made for different reasons, such as congested roads, increased crime, higher taxes or the loss of open space.
No matter what, however, the antipathy always reflects problems associated with the rapid growth experienced by our next-door neighbor, which will surpass 1 million residents before long.
Nevertheless, in spite of the intense and sustained population pressure that has dramatically and permanently altered most of the once rural piedmont landscape of rolling farms and forests, Montgomery County has managed to accomplish something truly special.
Last week, the county celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Master Plan for Preservation of Agriculture and Open Space, perhaps the most successful open space preservation program in the United States.
The result of the county’s unusual commitment is the continued, if still threatened, existence of an unlikely and unique 93,000-acre “agricultural reserve.” Unlikely? Unique? Well, for perspective, consider that no other county in the country has found a way to match the accomplishment, and only a handful has even come close.
It’s remarkable that the residents and elected leaders managed to pull it off in the first place, and maintain it for a quarter of a century, so far, in the face of relentless pressure from development interests.
What was possible then, would not be possible today in Montgomery County, which has added some 400,000 residents since 1980.
And what is possible today will not be possible tomorrow in Frederick County.
The Frederick County Board of County Commissioners should see the example that has been set for us, and seize the opportunity to extend the ag preserve across the southern portion of the county.
If we do not, the preserve on our border will eventually become an isolated island of farms and woodlands surrounded by a sea of suburban development. Instead, we can do our part to enlarge and protect a beautiful and diverse corridor of rural America along the northern shore of the “Nation’s River.”
In addition to the existing ag preserve, we already have a good foundation to build on. The Frederick County preserve would include Sugarloaf Mountain, for example, a Registered Natural Landmark notable for of its geological qualities, natural beauty and striking vistas.
It would include the Monocacy River Natural Resources Management Area, and a few miles of the Monocacy River, which is designated a Maryland Scenic and Wild River. The area could encompass much of Bennett Creek, which flows from Little Bennett Regional Park in Montgomery County to the Monocacy River, and Tuscarora Creek, which flows directly into the Potomac.
And, finally, it would further protect the C&O Canal National Park, which runs along the entire southern edge of the county.
These areas serve as ecological anchors and public recreation areas, but it’s the farms that make it an ag preserve. And in this area, the county still has broad swaths of fertile and productive farmland, nearly 3,000 acres of which has already protected through various programs and easements.
This isn’t the place to spell out a detailed preservation strategy, but there are plenty of tools available, such as Maryland’s Program Open Space, GreenPrint, the Rural Legacy program, and a program featuring the transfer of development rights.
No less important, in the immediate future, anyway, would be to ensure that current ag zoning means more than just “hasn’t been rezoned yet.”
In other words, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
It’s a big idea. But it’s not a new idea. It’s already been done in our neck of the woods. And that was before a lot of the knowledge and tools were around that would make it easier today.
This is idealistic and realistic, entirely possible and practical.
When some people say they don’t want Frederick County to become like Montgomery, they are really saying they don’t want the county to become one big sprawling suburban landscape. If we can agree about that, and understand that preserving agricultural landscapes is a part of that, then what are we waiting for?
Of course, if we wait too long, at least the residents of Point of Rocks, Adamstown and Buckeystown will still be able to head over to Montgomery County to pick strawberries and pumpkins, or to bike or drive on quiet country lanes.